Elections held during the first year of a presidency tend to reject the president's party, as they did in 1993 and 2001 (and, as it turned out, 2009) in the Virginia and New Jersey governor's races. These results give us clues about where the nation's voters are headed; this election demonstrates that voters are looking to change direction this year.
As the final votes were being counted, it was possible to draw some lessons from Republican Bob McDonnell's victory in Virginia and the close, three-way governor's race in New Jersey, never mind that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has taken to saying that the elections don't mean much.
The odd-year elections--held in the first year of a presidency--have been meaningful over the last two decades. In 1993 New Jersey voters rejected tax-raising Democratic Gov. James Florio, despite the best efforts of Bill Clinton's consultant James Carville--a harbinger of the losses congressional Democrats suffered the next year after they raised taxes and supported, unavailingly, massive health care proposals.
In Virginia that year, Republican George Allen was elected on a platform of abolishing parole and opposing gun control. Those quickly became national consensus policies and remain so today.
In 2001, just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, George W. Bush's Republicans suffered defeats in Virginia and New Jersey. In Virginia, Mark Warner showed that a Democrat conversant with country music and stock car racing could make inroads in rural areas that had little use for Bill Clinton or Al Gore. Democrats gained their congressional majorities in 2006 by winning such areas.
In New Jersey, Democrat Jim McGreevey showed the enduring power of the gains that Clinton and Gore had made in suburbs hostile to cultural conservatives. These areas rejected Bush even when he was winning re-election in 2004.
This year the issues in the governor elections in Virginia and New Jersey are reasonably congruent with those raised by the programs of the Obama administration and congressional Democratic leaders. Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds in Virginia and Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine in New Jersey have refused to rule out tax increases even as congressional Democrats press health care bills loaded with them. Their Republican opponents have both opposed tax increases.
In Virginia, McDonnell has done considerably more than that. He has advanced substantive, detailed positions on transportation, jobs and education--issues that affect voters' everyday lives. He has also weighed in against national Democrats' health care, card check and cap-and-trade bills, while Deeds has dodged them--a clear sign those stands are unpopular in a state that voted 53 percent for Barack Obama.
Every Virginia poll taken since mid-October showed McDonnell with a double-digit lead, and he and his Republican ticket mates swept to solid victories. Those who dismiss such results as irrelevant to national politics might want to have a chat with Florio.
New Jersey this year is more complicated. About 60 percent of voters disapprove of Corzine's performance in a state with some of the highest taxes and public employee pensions in the country. But Corzine has used his personal wealth to drag Republican Chris Christie's numbers down, and Independent candidate Chris Daggett could take enough votes for Corzine to squeak through.
But a Corzine plurality win could scarcely be taken as an endorsement of Democratic policies in a state that Obama carried with 57 percent of the vote.
There will be some lessons in the results for Republicans as well. One of the big surprises of this year has been the spontaneous outpouring of spirited opposition to the Democrats' big government programs and the disappearance of the enthusiasm that propelled Obama and Democrats to their big wins in 2008. The question is how Republicans can harness that enthusiasm.
McDonnell did that in Virginia with a classic campaign. Early on, he staked out clear and detailed positions on issues important to voters and refused to be distracted by Washington Post news stories designed to depict him as an intolerant troglodyte. He showed the sense of command voters want in an executive.
Christie, with less experience in electoral politics, did not present such a detailed platform, which left him vulnerable to vote-poaching by Daggett and to the cynical attacks of the Corzine campaign. He's vulnerable as well to demographics: As he noted in his last ad, New Jersey's high taxes have been driving conservative voters out of the state.
Yes, both of these governor races involve issues specific to particular states and candidates with particular strengths and weaknesses. But the odd-year elections of 2009, like those of 1993 and 2001, still provide clues to where the nation's voters are headed, and it's a different direction than they took in the presidential election last year.
**Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.